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Photo editing software is a must-have for today's digital photographers, yet programs like Photoshop can be almost as expensive as the equipment, and even cheaper programs like PaintShop Photo Pro (previously known as Paint Shop Pro) will still cost you money you may not have to spare. Free software might just be for you: not only is it near or even surpassing purchased software in quality, but many also provide a flexibility that cannot be matched.
We've already looked at ten of the best free photo editing software, but how do they compare to each other? Here's a quick comparative review of some of the more popular free photo editing programs currently available:
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GIMP is the most popular, and arguably the best free photo editing software out there. Not only is GIMP fully customizable, but it's also incredibly easy to use with a simple, powerful interface. Due to its extreme popularity, there is a myriad of tutorials out there, and also lots of user-created scripts, brushes, plugins and more that are free for anyone to use—the blessing of open source software. Frankly, little would be missed from a switch from Photoshop to GIMP—this free, open-source software is getting better all the time with constant updates and compatibility with virtually everything, from Photoshop plugins to RAW format and more.
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It takes a lot to compare anywhere close to GIMP, and ImageForge doesn't quite make the cut. While the basic version is free, and can get an absolute minimum of photo editing done, it's really just bait to try and get you to update to the pro version in the hope that something—anything—will be usable. Combine the poor features with poor usability, and there's really little to recommend.
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Paint.NET began as a student project to replace the most basic of image editing software—Microsoft Paint—and while it compares favorably to other minor photo editing software, it still can't touch the likes of GIMP. There are a handful of features that benefit photographers, including basic red eye removal, curve adjustment and some decent color filters, including sepia and black & white. Due to its open source nature, there are many user-contributed plugins, and a decent number of tutorials out there.
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The best feature of PhotoFiltre is its size—a mere 1.6MB! While it still only has rudimentary features, the small size makes it an acceptable choice for places where size is an issue, like on cramped hard drives or even flash drives.
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Similar to PhotoForge, PhotoPlus SE is another piece of software that offers itself for free in hopes that one will pay a fee and upgrade to the 'professional' version, PhotoPlus X2. It's an essential clone of the basic Photoshop features, which can be found in less obnoxious software packages where the user isn't nagged to upgrade every few clicks. The user interface is also quite clumsy. On the (faintly) positive side, many Photoshop plugins can be applied to PhotoPlus for free.
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The interface of Photoscape is unique, yet friendly and easy to use, which is worth looking at if more standard interfaces present a problem for you. It also boasts of more features than most other free editing software—even if any of them do not allow for the complexity and precision of GIMP. Nonetheless, it has a few interesting features that are only available as (free) plugins for software like GIMP, such as the “photo layout" feature which allows you to easily make photo collages, or the “rename" tool, which saves you some serious mouse-clicking when renaming your files on your computer.
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Google is arguably the biggest name out on the internet today—and they have image editing software by the name of Picasa. Of course it's going to be good: it's Google! In my mind, this piece software presents the only real competition to GIMP in the free editing software realm. Unlike GIMP, it does a bit more than pure photo editing—it can also efficiently organize your photos, searching through your hard drive organizing them along the “Timeline". It's also a bit more user-friendly to use than GIMP, instead of presenting bars upon bars of tools sorting them into some easy to use categories, “basic fixes", “tuning" and “effects". More is to come, so even if you're not sold now, it'd be a good idea to keep watch on this facet of Google.
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While free software that advertises for a pro version is typically pretty suspect, Picnik isn't typical. This software is entirely online. Let's say it again: entirely online. There is nothing you need to download. The pictures can be taken right off the web, or from the computer, and edited completely in-browser. While the features are somewhat rudimentary compared to the sophistication of GIMP or Picasa, it is also incredibly convenient if you are in a situation where you must work with photos away from your own software. Picnik also makes it incredibly easy to be social with your photos, with easy uploads to a variety of accounts, from Facebook to Flickr.